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Mississippi: Plying America’s Greatest River Highway, With Energy

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted July 3, 2017

When Huck Finn and Jim floated down the Mississippi on their river raft, the waters around them swirled and frothed in the wake of massive, wedding cake-tiered riverboats, their paddle wheels churning the “Big Muddy” while tall, fluted stacks belched sparks and clouds of black smoke.

Download: Energy is Mississippi

The golden era of riverboat transportation is gone, yet along the state of Mississippi’s western boundary, marked by its river namesake for some 350 miles, descendants of those proud, historic river belles still ply Ol Man River.

With names that include the Steamboat Natchez, American Queen, Queen of the Mississippi and American Duchess, the current incarnations of the boats that were familiar to Mark Twain evoke some nostalgia for a different era – while deploying modern energy to paddle up and down waterways safely, more efficiently and more comfortably for today’s passengers.

Left in the past are coal-fired boilers and kerosene lamps – replaced by powerful engines, bow thrusters and generators. The Steamboat Natchez and American Queen still have steam-powered engines, but they use diesel and natural gas to heat their boilers.

Inforaphic: Energy Belle Riverboat

River Cruising

Visitors to Mississippi’s key river ports of Natchez, Vicksburg and Greenville can see the river still hard at work – moving barges and other commercial traffic – or they may ride on one of riverboat replicas. A number of them operate as day cruises, while others offer accommodations for several days, with multiple stops up and down the river. It’s a unique way for guests to step back into the 19th century without the hardships of yesteryear – made possible by up-to-date creature comforts associated with natural gas and oil.

The energy story here is more than just the fuel to move these boats up and down the Mississippi River. Energy is found everywhere, from the tint on the windows to the food being served. UV tinting on cruise boat windows, including on riverboats on the Mississippi, keeps passengers comfortable and increases energy efficiency. They’re often the product of petroleum-based monomers and oligomers. Meanwhile, onboard commercial kitchens keep the passengers fed often use natural gas and propane to cook meals.

Transportation Thoroughfare

Beyond the picturesque riverboats cruising the Mississippi, energy also is involved with the tens of thousands of other commercial, tourism and recreational craft that call the river home. Of the commercial vessels using the river, some 400-500 million tons of goods are transported each year, with virtually all of them using diesel and liquefied natural gas to move their cargo.

The use of the Mississippi to transport goods is an extremely efficient use of energy. The 700-mile stretch of river between St. Louis and New Orleans has no dams, which means massive barges can navigate it while carrying a thousand tons of cargo a mile on a single gallon of fuel with the help of downriver flow. It is considered the most efficient shipping method in the country, with train shipping costing more than double.   

America’s Economic Heart

Traversing some 2,350 miles and crossing or bordering 10 states across the center of the country, the Mississippi River and the energy powering its vessels produces an economic benefit of some $405 billion a year. This includes providing drinking water for more than 18 million, transporting 62 percent of the nation’s agricultural goods and delivering around 400 tons of coal and petroleum products, all while directly supporting 1 million jobs and indirectly millions more.

Certainly, while many may connect the Mississippi with those old paddle wheelers Huck and Jim spied from their raft, the river’s broad, rippling expanses provide much more. Thanks to natural gas and oil, America’s longest river accounts for about 2.2 percent of our nation’s entire economic output.

So, as the Mississippi keeps on rollin’ along, it keeps to itself the stories of decades and centuries past. Those are being added to by today’s travelers who, thanks to modern energy, appreciate the river’s continued integral contributions to American life.


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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.